Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Elephant No. 86: Seed Bead Embroidery

I was making bracelets for my little nieces about a week ago, trailing seed beads all over the place, when I realized that I hadn't done a seed bead elephant yet.

Seed beads are small, uniform round beads, commonly used for bead weaving, as well as jewellery, embroidery, knitting and crocheting.

Hanks of glass seed beads, most of which in this photograph
are foil-lined.
Source: http://www.topoftherangedesigns.com/beads_

Although adding small beads to clothing dates back 40,000 years or so, a pair of beads approximately 100,000 years old—made from the shell of the Nassarius sea snail—are thought to be the earliest examples of beaded jewellery.

During the Late Stone Age (ca. 40,000 to 10,000 years ago), beads on clothing were usually made of shell or ivory. More elaborate beadwork, in multiple shades and repeating patterns, was first produced in Ancient Egypt around 2000 B.C., using small faience beads. There were beaded items, for example, in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, including a hassock and some slippers he had likely worn as a child.

In India, the earliest mention of beadwork is from around the ninth century B.C., referring to the braiding of beads into the tails of horses, and into the hair of men and women. And in a document from around 300 B.C., Buddhist monks are told not to wear beaded shoes, with the obvious implication that beaded shoes were common by this time.

Traditional beaded slippers from India.
Source: http://www.tradekey.com/product_view/id/7417.htm

Surviving examples of early beaded items are relatively rare, largely because the material onto which they were sewn—usually leather or cloth—has disintegrated over time. That being said, elaborate beadwork from the eighth century A.D. has been discovered in the Shosoin Temple in Nara, Japan, and early African beadwork has been found in a tomb in Nigeria, dating from sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries A.D. In Europe, the earliest known beadwork features blue glass beads, seed pearls and coral beads, and comes from a thirteenth-century tomb near Burgos, Spain.

The first mass-produced seed beads were made in India and other parts of South Asia. They dominated the bead trade from the ninth century B.C. to approximately 1480 A.D., when glassworkers in Venice learned how to make thin glass tubes and turn them into small beads. In Europe, these beads were used primarily for beaded purses, although they also had great importance as trade items, particularly in North America and Africa.

Bandolier bag, Ojibwa, ca. 1880–1890.
Collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.
Source: http://images.rom.on.ca/public/index.php?

Today, two primary techniques are used to produce seed beads. The "wound" (as in "winding" not "harming") method is more traditional. Because it is also more time-consuming, it is no longer widely used in modern bead production. In this method, a chunk of glass is heated on an iron bar until molten. A second iron bar is then pushed into the molten blob, and the two rods are drawn quickly apart. This creates a long glass rod, which is then cut into shorter lengths. These shorter lengths are wound around a hot metal wire, creating a ring of glass, which is then shaped until it is smooth and round. This process is repeated several times on the hot wire, creating several glass rings, which are then slid off the wire to be used as beads.

The second method is the "drawn" method, which also involves the heating of a chunk of glass on an iron bar. Next, an air bubble is created inside the blob of molten glass. This means that, as the two iron bars are drawn apart, a tube is created, rather than a rod. This tube is then cooled and cut into small pieces, which are tumbled to remove any sharp edges.

Prior to the Second World War, there was a thriving bead industry in Eastern Europe, particularly in Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic). Germany, Italy and France were also noted producers of small beads. Most of these were glass, although some were also made of metals such as aluminum or steel, and were sometimes faceted. During the Second World War, many of the bead-producing factories were destroyed or converted to munitions facilities and similar installations. After the war, however, hoards of pre-war beads suddenly surfaced, and are now much sought after.

Today, most higher-quality seed beads are made in either Japan or the Czech Republic, with some specialty seed beads made in France for the restoration or reproduction of antique textiles. Lesser-quality seed beads are made in large quantities in China, India and Taiwan. Modern seed beads are made by machine, using glass rods that are heated until red-hot. The rods are then fed into a steel stamping machine that forms the round shapes, which are then pierced with a moving needle that makes the hole.

Seed beads can be glass, plastic, metal and foil lined, with finishes ranging from an AB (for "aurora borealis") rainbow effect, to pearlized, striped, or even matte. Interestingly, the recipe for a true black glass was lost during the First World War, and modern black glass, when held up to sunlight, is actually a deep purple.

I made a sizeable elephant on the back of a jean jacket a few years ago, but it took me a couple of weeks, if I remember correctly. So for today's elephant, it was going to have to be something small.

I started by yet again dragging out all my seed beads. As you can see, I have many different colours. What I didn't realize is that I also have different sizes. This would annoy me later.

I decided to embroider onto a piece of black velvet, and started by outlining the trunk area with some silver-grey shiny beads. I was either too lazy or too impatient (take your pick) to outline anything with chalk or thread, so I was winging it to a certain extent. I also apologize for some of the photos: the camera was deeply disturbed by this whole exercise.

Because I knew I wanted to add a little headdress, I put that in next, followed by the ear area. At this point, I thought I detected a slight difference in size in the purple beads, but I ignored it. This would come back to bite me later.

Next, I added the lower jaw, and a bit of pink in the ear area, the tip of the trunk and the mouth. I also added a larger black bead for the eye.

I began adding details such as darker beads for a bit of shading, a tusk and some decorations like a tassel hanging over the ear, and a necklace. This is where the stupid purple beads irked the heck out of me. Although they looked the same size when I bought them, they were larger, and didn't fit with the other beads.

Also, because I had by now gotten a visual idea of how much room each seed bead needed in order to fit with the others, the moment I stitched the bigger purple beads in, they crowded themselves and the other beads out. I just couldn't get a fix on how much bigger they actually were. I didn't dare cut them out, however, because the thread was connected to other areas of beading. This meant that, if I cut out the purple beads, I was likely to take some other unexpected area with them. So I left them and tried to ignore their lumpy look.

It was now ready for me to fill in everything else with the main silver-grey colour, so that's what I did. From start to finish, this took me about four hours and, despite its size, contains somewhere between 200 and 300 beads.

I would have liked more time to pattern the beads better: organizing them into rows like brushstrokes, rather than sewing them on a bit higgledy-piggledy. On the other hand, I like the final result enough not to want to mess with it any further. Except for the purple beads—but I think I'm stuck with those.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Among the Bamileke people of Cameroon in West Africa, elephant masks were traditionally worn by important leaders, as well as their deputies or messengers. Signifying kingship and wealth, these masks were worn by the ruling Kuosi society, which included royalty, the wealthy, and high-ranking warriors of the Bandjoun kingdom in western Cameroon.

The beads used in these masks were nineteenth-century trade beads from Venice or Czechoslovakia, and were most commonly paid in exchange for a certain rank or position. Elephant masks were thus called "things of money", since their beads were both currency and symbols of wealth.  

Traditional Bamileke elephant masks are made with cloth panels, and hoods that are woven from plantain fibre over raffia. Multicoloured beads are then stitched over this foundation in geometric patterns. The basic form includes a long trunk, round ears and human facial features. The hood fits tightly over the wearer's head. Two long panels, front and back partially conceal the body; the panel in front acting as the trunk. As the wearer dances, ears, trunk and back flap move.

Front view of traditional Bamelike elephant mask.
Photo: Tim Hamill
Source: http://www.hamillgallery.com/BAMILEKE/

Back view of traditional Bamelike elephant mask.
Photo: Tim Hamill
Source: http://www.hamillgallery.com/BAMILEKE/

The masks are often worn with dark robes. These constrast sharply with the wearer's legs, which are stained bright red. The costume often includes a beaded vest, a belt and even a leopard pelt down the back.

The chief owns the masking society, which performs to drums and gongs while waving poles trimmed with beads and horsehair. The masked dancers whistle "mysteriously and tunelessly" according to one account, and are later joined by chiefs and princesses in a parade and performance that includes crowd participation.

The profligacy with which the masks were beaded—often including cowrie shells, another symbol of wealth and power—displayed the wealth of the chief and his people. The masks were also colour-coded, with black indicating the relationship between the living and the dead; white referring to potent medicines and the ancestors; and red symbolizing life, women and kingship. A prominent triangle symbolized a leopard's spots, the leopard being a royal symbol of power, like the elephant.

The King and Kuosi society members, Bandjoun, ca. 1930.
Source: http://www.randafricanart.com/images/bamileke_kuosi.jpg

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund  
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Lovely work
    Could please help me know where in India (Bangalore) I could get seed beads to have a collection like yours?
    Please inbox to salvwiprasad@gmail.com